"O L-RD, Who are my power and my strength and my refuge in the day of trouble, to You nations will come from the ends of the earth and say, 'Only lies have our fathers handed down to us, emptiness in which there is nothing of any avail! Can a man make gods for himself, and they are no gods? 'Therefore, behold I let them know; at this time I will let them know My power and My might, and they shall know that My Name is the L-RD".
Jeremiah 16:19-21

by Charles F. Hudson

Christians have taken many qualities and benefits attributed to God, as found in the Hebrew Bible, and twisted them around so that these same qualities and benefits are now to be found ONLY through belief in the God-man Jesus Christ.

Take, for example, this remarkable claim from Romans about the grace of God:

“Through [our Lord Jesus Christ] we have gained access by faith into this grace in which we now stand…” Just as Paul makes much of the superiority of faith over works (see especially chapter 4), so he counts grace as the better gift that Christianity has to offer sinful humanity. He opposes grace to law: “For sin shall not be master over you, for you are not under law but under grace” (6:14). Likewise he contrasts grace and works: “If by grace, no longer of works, otherwise grace would no longer be grace” (11:6; cf. 4:4). Paul claims that grace through Jesus Christ results in righteousness and eternal life (5:21).”

    Exactly what grace became available to the Christian that was not present in God’s covenant relationship with Israel?
    What do Christians mean by grace?

Christians boast that grace replaces the commandments of God as the means to salvation, (1) which they interpret to mean eternal life, heaven not hell. But again, just what does this grace consist of? Just as with faith versus works, grace versus law is not the real issue that divides Christianity and Judaism. For when Christians offer grace, what they really mean is nothing but the person of Jesus Christ. “Christianity makes Jesus the embodiment of [grace] and commands the believers to seek Divine grace through his mediation.” (2) All the fine words about grace are but a camouflage to conceal the harsh demand that Christianity makes: accept Jesus Christ or face the judgment of God without hope.

In other words, first they condemn you, then they offer to save you if only you will accept their claims for Jesus Christ. In this way Christians have turned grace on its head–what they call grace is not true grace at all, but an unqualified surrender to idolatry, a bondage to the God-man, which requires that you deny the efficacy of all that came before.

Grace thus becomes God’s fiat: believe everything Christianity says about Jesus Christ, or be eternally damned. Put in this light, the grace they preach is not such a wonderful thing, is it?

Christians have stolen and reinterpreted to their favor all that God blessed Israel with. The Church, in their view, has superceded the “old” covenant which lacked one thing–Jesus Christ. Indeed, to access their form of grace you must reject Israel, not only because Israel rejected Jesus Christ, but also because God’s covenant with Israel found expression in law.

The concept of God showing grace to man is found in Exodus 34:6-7. After God’s name is announced twice, he is declared to be compassionate, gracious, long suffering, and abounding in kindness and faithfulness.Kindness (chesed), perhaps the most important of these terms in relation to God’s covenant with Israel, appears twice.

The same thought is expanded upon in a wonderful way in Psalm 103:8-14:

“The LORD is compassionate and gracious,
long suffering and abounding in kindness.
He does not always accuse,
and he does not forever bear a grudge.
He does not treat us as our sins deserve,
and he does not repay us according to our wrongs.
For as high as the heavens are above the earth,
so surpassing is his kindness toward those who fear him;
as far as east is from west,
so far has he distanced our transgressions from us.
As a father has compassion on his children,
so has the LORD compassion on those who fear him.
For he knows our form, he remembers that we are dust.”

Also, Psalm 130:3-4:

“If you, LORD, kept a record of sins,
Lord, who could stand?
But with you is forgiveness,
therefore you are feared.”

Another real gem is found in Psalm 119:29-32, which opens with “be gracious to me through your law” and closes with “I run in the path of your commandments, for you set my heart free!” Ah, law and grace kiss each other, law and liberty meet together?

Two points are evident about the nature of God’s grace in the Hebrew Bible (and in the teaching of Judaism):

First, God extends his grace, as well as his kindness and mercy, specifically to those who fear him (cf. Psalm 103:11, 13, 17; 130:4). To fear God, at the most basic level, is to acknowledge and respect God’s authority and to serve him accordingly. Some level of human commitment precedes the offer of grace.

Second, grace does not erase all human accountability. (3) In Exodus 34:7 God’s forgiveness is qualified by man’s accountability for the consequences of his sin: God “does not remit all punishment.” Man’s accountability is further expressed through the requirement of repentance. The first response to sin is not God’s grace, but man’s repentance, in which “the wicked man turns away from all the sins he has committed” (Ezekiel 18:21) and turns to the observance of God’s laws. The futility of showing grace to the wicked, without repentance, is noted by Isaiah: “If the wicked man is shown grace, he does not learn righteousness; in a land of integrity, he does evil, and does not regard the majesty of the LORD” (Isaiah 26:10). So while grace is a good thing, grace does not in itself produce righteousness.

On both of these points, Christianity offers a cheaper version of grace. Paul identifies the beneficiaries of grace not only as those “yet sinners” (Romans 5:8) but also as God’s “enemies” (Romans 5:10): those who neither acknowledge their sins nor repent of them. This is grace without commitment or accountability. (4)

So what else does Christianity bring to the concept of grace that cannot already be found, apart from Jesus Christ, in the Hebrew Bible? Three more points of difference are worth mention:

First, in Christianity, grace is associated with the concept of ‘original sin.’ (5) Paul introduces this concept in Romans 5:12-18: sin entered the world through one man, Adam, and the result was death and condemnation for all men; likewise grace came by one man, Jesus Christ, and the result was the gift of righteousness and eternal life for all men. Grace serves as the only available means to overcome man’s sinful nature, to lift him out of his moral depravity, his bondage to sin. In Judaism more scope is accorded man’s free will to choose between good and evil, life and death.

  • “Whereas Christianity teaches that sin rules man,
  • Judaism declares that man rules sin.”

(6) The account of Adam’s sin in Genesis 3 does not support the Christian doctrine of ‘original sin.

‘ While Genesis does suggest that physical death was one result of Adam’s disobedience, nothing further need be deduced: not bondage to sin, not condemnation, not ‘spiritual’ death (as some Christians interpret the references to death in Romans 5).

Second, in Christianity, grace is opposed to law. According to Paul, grace is sufficient to order a person’s life in the way of righteousness. Just how grace accomplishes this end, without introducing the discipline of precepts or commandments, is left unclear. Paul attempts to answer the question in chapter 6, but his answer translates into wishful thinking: consider yourself to be so (e.g., dead to sin), and you will be so. In Judaism, grace does not replace law in the pursuit of righteousness, for both grace and law have the same divine author. Indeed, God’s law is an expression of God’s grace to Israel.

Third, in Christianity, grace is attached to the person of Jesus Christ: no Jesus, no grace. Here again is the real issue separating Christianity from Judaism: Christianity is all about Jesus. Judaism does not reject God’s grace; Judaism rejects Christianity’s claims for Jesus.

In the tradition of Israel, the daily morning service includes this prayer: “Grant us today and every day grace, kindness, and mercy in Your sight and in the sight of all who look upon us.” Gracekindness, and mercy are all benefits to be sought and deeds to be practiced before God and man on a daily basis. This is the essence of Judaism.

Likewise, the closing words of the prayer Avinu Malkeinu appeal to God’s grace and kindness to make up for a lack of good deeds: “Our Father, our King, be gracious to us and answer us, for we are wanting in good deeds; deal with us in charity and kindness, and save us.”

Notes

1. I will let pass the important distinction that the commandments are directed toward sanctification, not salvation per se.

2. Trude Weiss-Rosmarin, Judaism and Christianity: The Differences (Middle Village, New York: Jonathan David Publishers, 1997), p. 59. [Originally published in 1943.]

3. Along these lines, Leon Wieseltier, Kaddish (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1998), makes an interesting distinction between mercy and grace: “Mercy is not grace, because it preserves the traces of human accountability. In this sense, mercy is less than grace, and it is more” (p. 140). Also: “Nobody dies for anybody else’s sins. There is mercy, but there is not a release from responsibility. Morally speaking, there are no miracles” (p. 209). However, rather than focus on the English words themselves, whether mercy or grace, I prefer to say that the general concept of grace is interpreted differently between the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament.

4. Christians often disparage “cheap grace” in contrast to a version of grace that results in commitment and accountability, but the initial offer of grace remains unqualified.

5. This connection was suggested to me by David Richter in personal correspondence, February 17, 2000.

6. Trude Weiss-Rosmarin, Judaism and Christianity: The Differences, p. 46.

 

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